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When the NCAA Board of Governors meets on Tuesday, it will take another formal step toward allowing athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness in ways that would have been considered blasphemous by the so-called leaders of college athletics just a few years ago. 

Product and apparel endorsements? Sure. Paid autographs? Why not. Selling memorabilia to make a few bucks? That’s likely going to be allowed, too, according to the recommendations made by a working group that college presidents deputized last fall to study how to modernize NCAA rules with the organization under significant pressure from federal and state lawmakers. 

After all these years of expensive court cases and fighting the tide of public opinion, the recommendations that college presidents are expected to approve represent nothing less than waving the white flag on the concept of “amateurism.” And that pleases nobody more than Sonny Vaccaro, the former shoe company executive who encouraged former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon to become lead plaintiff on an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA that in many ways opened the floodgates on where we’re at today. 

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“This is probably the first smile I’ve had in a long time, but it’s the smile I’ve wanted to have for a long time,” the 80-year-old Vaccaro said Monday from his home in California, where he and his wife, Pam, are sheltered in place due to the COVID-19 outbreak. “I really never, ever thought in my lifetime I’d see it happen. This was my ultimate fight. I’m very emotional about it, and I feel unbelievably proud and happy for Eddie O’Bannon. I’m ecstatic.” 

Public opinion turned against NCAA

Vaccaro isn’t going to take a victory lap, even if he’s owed one. It would be hard to find anyone more responsible for shining a light on the hypocrisy of a system that allowed college basketball coaches to make millions of dollars in exchange for their teams to wear a particular brand of shoe, while players were prevented from doing anything to monetize their popularity. 

For Vaccaro, the first person to sign those coaches to sneaker deals when he was with Nike in the late 1970s, the notion that college athletes shouldn’t be allowed the same rights or that they didn’t have marketing value was obviously false.

The hard part — and maybe it shouldn’t have been this hard — was convincing everyone else to come along. But even in Vaccaro’s most optimistic worldview, it would have been difficult to imagine how swiftly and how completely the NCAA has been forced to publicly disavow almost everything it argued in the O’Bannon trial six years ago. 

Just think of it: In June of 2014, NCAA president Mark Emmert testified under oath that “regardless of the source,” paying a college athlete for their name, image and likeness “obviously strikes at” the principle of amateurism, which is fundamental to college sports. He also testified that athletes in an “amateur context” shouldn’t be used as “shills for a product,” as if he didn’t run an organization that forced everyone involved in its basketball tournament (including reporters sitting courtside) to pour their drinks into cups with the Powerade logo, just in case the TV cameras caught a glimpse. 

Though the NCAA technically lost that case, in a sense it won. It was guilty of violating antitrust law but didn’t have to completely change its model, instead giving the athletes a little extra money that was couched as the “full cost of attendance.”

But then there was another case chipping away at the amateur model, then another still. Public opinion turned against the NCAA and made clear that college sports would be just as popular regardless of whether Zion Williamson was doing national commercials for Subway sandwiches, or the random offensive lineman at a Group of Five school got $250 to do an appearance at a hardware store in his hometown.

Then the California state legislature decided last year to pass a law that forced the NCAA’s hand. Others followed. Suddenly, the issue hit the halls of Congress, and both Republicans and Democrats agreed that the NCAA’s devotion to keeping money out of athletes’ pockets violated both human rights and the free market. 

Now? Shill, baby, shill. 

“They always had the right answer until O’Bannon,” Vaccaro said. “That was the crack.”

About-face for NCAA

Give the NCAA some credit here. The recommendations presented by the name, image and likeness working group, which haven’t been made public but have been reviewed by USA TODAY Sports, go significantly further than anyone, including Vaccaro, would have expected several months ago. 

A slew of details still have to be fleshed out and turned into NCAA legislation that will be adopted next January, but if those broad recommendations are endorsed by the presidents, it’s nothing short of a total about-face of all the nonsense Emmert and others in the college sports orbit have been peddling for a decade — about how allowing players to trade on their likeness and popularity would permanently damage the product. 

Now, as the working group writes in its series of recommendations: “Many student-athletes may have limited opportunities in their lifetimes to profit from their names, images and likenesses. If a market exists for a student-athlete to be compensated for an appearance, he or she should be permitted to capitalize on that potential, provided the compensation is not an inducement to attend an institution or ‘pay for play’ compensation.” 

Why was admitting that so hard? The frustrating part is that it should have been done years ago. 

Conceptually, amateurism has been dead for a long time. It was a vestige of the days when sports were a hobby for the elite, not part of a billion-dollar commercial enterprise. Tennis and golf gave it up decades ago. The Olympics had divorced itself from the alleged purity of amateurism by the late 1980s. In more recent times, only the NCAA really cared about the word, which meant amateurism could be molded into whatever the NCAA wanted it to be.

Instead, we were treated to a series of pseudo-scandals that, likely starting next year, wouldn’t even constitute rules violations. Thirty years from now, our kids will laugh at the idea that Johnny Manziel was suspended for selling his autograph. 

Had the NCAA been more flexible and adaptable and forward-thinking, it could have written its own destiny. Instead, it’s heading toward an inevitable surrender. 

Vaccaro chooses to celebrate

As Vaccaro recalls, there came a point in the O’Bannon trial where the two sides could have come to an agreement and each walked away happy. He was directly involved in some of those talks with people he knew on the other side. Instead, the NCAA dug in, hoping for total victory on the basis of an ideology it would abandon six years later.

But rather than point fingers and offer recriminations, Vaccaro chooses to celebrate. Not just for the elite teenage basketball player who could have the ability to sign a $500,000 shoe contract and still have the chance to play in college, but for the elite swimmer who will be able to pay for training, or the women’s basketball player who can sign an endorsement deal. 

“There’s a market for every demographic and age group in the world. That’s why they make baby food and put a baby on the bottle,” Vaccaro said. “That’s the value of the individual they said has no value. Thousands of kids will benefit from a few kids’ effort a long time ago. It’s one of the happiest days of my life.”

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